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What is Citizenship?

January 23, 2001

Office for the War Manpower Commission, 1943In his inauguration address, President George W. Bush exhorted Americans to act as "citizens" and to demonstrate the virtues necessary for good citizenship.  Of course, the usual crowd thought that was great, especially following the narcissistic presidency of Bill Clinton.  However, maybe it is time to look again at these demands made by the political classes that productive people work even harder in order to support them.

Books and speeches by politicians demanding virtue from the citizenry are legion. From Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" to John F. Kennedy’s famous "Ask Not" line to Jimmy Carter’s "Moral Equivalence of War" (MEOW) speech given from the comfort of the White House, individuals are called upon to sacrifice and give support to the state. This latest inaugural address, while sounding good to the ears of some pundits, carries on the fiction that collectivism is the highest duty of American citizens.

First, and most important, it is not as though many of us citizens do not already work hard to support government at all levels. While I do not earn enough to fall into the highest tax brackets, a quick examination of my W-2 forms shows that I have had a huge portion of my income confiscated to feed the revenue beasts of Washington, D.C., and the State of South Carolina.  When one throws in sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and the like, the picture becomes even more clear: I work for nearly half a year just to support the political classes who then demand more.  That I should work to support my own family must be subordinated to my "duty" to support the political classes and their allies.

I hardly fall into a singular class. Millions of Americans like myself pay exorbitant amounts of taxes, and then are forced to hear politicians and some economists say that cutting taxes is "risky."  Furthermore, any call by citizens to cut taxes and government spending is immediately shouted down by politicians and their supporters as "irresponsible" and quite incompatible with Good Citizenship.  For all the ballyhoo from Washington and Wall Street about the dangers of President Bush’s proposed tax cut, most of us – including that mysterious wealthy one percent – will hardly notice anything even if Congress approves the whole thing.

Second, politicians are forever pushing the idea that people only "work together" when exhorted to do so by their political masters. The billions of acts of cooperation that occur each day within the various private marketplaces are declared to be nothing more than wicked selfishness, an impediment to Real Social Cooperation.  Like Thomas Hobbes, they believe that only a Leviathan State can force people to jointly seek the True Interests of society.

Unfortunately for politicians, reality has a way of clouding their speech.  Last week, my wife was forced to sit for hours at the local Social Security office just to be able to apply for an SS card for my recently adopted daughter.  (It used to be that we could wait until we took our first job before receiving our SS numbers, but now the government insists that infants also be numbered.)  My wife had no real option but to "cooperate" with her political masters, who insisted she take a number and wait her turn.

Later that day, she shopped at one of the many grocery stores in this area.  No one there put her through the third degree, and the workers there willingly helped her when she needed assistance.  Yet, in political speak, the SS office was a paragon of people "working together" while the grocery store was a nest of selfishness.  Indeed, no one at a private pension office would have abused my wife the day the Social Security Administration did that day, but according to our political classes, pensions often are characterized as legalized theft while SS is compassion in action.

Third, what the political classes constitute to be the "duties of a citizen" and what seems to be real public service often are at odds.  For example, individuals who vote are lauded as "participating in democracy," yet it is clear that large blocs of voters are doing nothing more than electing politicians who promise to loot the belongings of others.  Just because theft is legalized at the ballot box does not mean that it is not stealing.  Likewise, working for the government does not constitute "public service."  As my wife discovered at the SS office, she was the servant, not those who were supposed to "serve" her.

Of course, Bush also lauds efforts by private citizens to engage in relief work, building homes for poor people through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and working with homeless people. Those volunteers who do such things are often said to be "giving back to the community," as though they had taken something not rightfully theirs in the first place. I do not see the difference in the local grocery store manager working hard each day so my wife will have a decent place to shop and in that manager "serving humanity" by volunteering at a soup kitchen.  Better yet, I do not see how the latter is superior to the former.

Yes, the manager may receive financial compensation for his managerial work and be paid nothing for pouring soup into bowls, but were it not for the productive efforts of that manager and millions of other people who work, there would be no soup and no bowl to give that homeless person.  We often forget that productive work is, indeed, work that serves humanity.

Yes, I plan to be a good citizen by obeying laws, showing up at my job each day, and not demanding the government take something from someone else in order to give to me.  While I am not sure that my plan meets Bush’s criteria to be a citizen, it sure beats what the political classes tell us are civic virtues.


William Anderson (send him mail), is a former Mises Institute scholarship student who now teaches economics at North Greenville College. See Anderson's Daily Article Archive 

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